The Economist this week has two stories back-to-back in its Science and Technology section on cognitive enhancement. Not surprisingly the first one, which is about the widespread use of cognition-enhancing drugs (such as Ritalin and Provigil) to help you pass exams or improve performance, and the expectation of more to come, has been given the greater attention by the wider press. It’s a scare story about competition and cheating and raises the possibility of the need to test students as potential drug cheats. But The Economist takes a controversial tack in its editorial, likening this to “harmless” coffee and arguing it is a good thing.

It falls on deaf ears here because this is a week when I did not drink or eat any coffee, milk, wheat product, potato, rice or any refined carbohydrate excepting that contained in one bar of 85% cocoa chocolate. I drank no alcohol either. I’ve been doing this as a stricter enforcement of a paleo-style diet to help regulate my weight, but above all else to enhance cognition, and for longer-term preventative health. As far as I’m aware, it is working. With one or two qualifications. Those qualifications being a coincident virus that caused a migraine which lasted longer than I’d normally expect, prompting a little hypochondria and Googling for ideas about nutritional deficiency — to no avail.

The paleo-style diet (or lifestyle) is hard to sustain and I can tell you that it has been a lot harder in the short run than popping a few pills. But my argument with The Economist‘s view is that the brain is a complex system: don’t mess with it if you don’t need to. My own experience seems to suggest that I’m a little insulin-resistant, with diabetes in the family, so a lower-carb diet is likely to be beneficial.

But the second story in The Economist pairing owes more to my approach than the pill-popping. This other story describing research that social position can be detrimental to cognition has received no mainstream attention elsewhere, as far as Google can tell us. It has been, thus far, editorially cold-shouldered, and subordinated, and yet by far and away it is the more interesting story for self-experimenters, self-improvers, collaborationists, diversity specialists, managers, teachers, coaches and parents.

Pamela Smith and colleagues from Radboud University Nijmegen suspected that a lack of social power might reduce someone’s ability to keep track of information and make plans to achieve goals in difficult and distracting circumstances. This seems like common sense, not least because I’ve seen a number of situations, for example, where even senior executives have lost confidence and status and then suffered a quite immediate impairment. I’ve even experienced it myself at significant moments. I once had to pitch for $30 million for a management buy-out having been booked into a shoddy lower-Manhattan hotel where the breakfast was served on paper plates. Not a good start to the day. The next day, for the next pitch, I moved to a different hotel and a waterside suite — ironically for much the same price.

The Economist says:-

To explore this theory, she (Dr Smith) carried out three tests. In the first, participants were divided at random into groups of superiors and subordinates. They were told that the superiors would direct and evaluate the subordinates and that this evaluation would determine the subordinates’ payment for the experiment. Superiors were paid a fixed amount. The subordinates were then divided into two further groups: powerless and empowered. A sense of powerlessness was instilled, the researchers hoped, by having participants write for several minutes about a time when they were powerless or by asking them to unscramble sets of words including “obey”, “subordinate” and so on to form sentences. The empowered, by contrast, were asked to write about when they had been on top, or to form sentences including “authority”, “dominate” and similar words.

Not much, you might say, to induce a sense of inferiority or superiority when compared with the real-life stress of a domineering boss or other confidence-draining circumstance, but nevertheless enough to make an impact on several cognitive tasks:-

In all three tests Dr Smith found that low-power participants made 2-5% more errors than their high-power counterparts. She argues that these results were not caused by the low-power volunteers being less motivated, as they had the same financial incentive as the high-power volunteers to do well. Instead, she suspects that those lacking in power suffered adverse cognitive effects from that very lack, and thus had difficulty maintaining their focus on the tasks.

A common problem in evaluating how well someone is doing relative to their ability is the often-mentioned fundamental attribution error: a pretty universal cognitive bias where we will tend to ascribe another‘s failure in a task to their personality rather than their circumstances — largely because we will probably have more data about their personality than the circumstances. Conversely, we judge our own failures more kindly because we know what extenuates them.

What Pamela Smith’s findings suggest is that when we are judging an individual for promotion, for example, it is quite possible that their performance will be transformed once they emerge from a subordinate position, and even more so if we have failed to motivate them properly. They may have been swimming hard against a tidal flow that we cannot see.

Of course, this applies from hiring manager to teacher, coach, and parent, and should require CEOs and other leaders to show a little more humility given the cognitive momentum their high status affords them.

While I love what the cognitive sciences are doing these days, I can’t help but be reminded of the existing literature on these matters. This one evokes the first record I ever owned: Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of The Ugly Duckling. And this YouTube rendering is not so different from the way I used to enjoy it nearly 40 years ago.

Take a look. And believe that you are a swan.

Donate and help me buy back my Fender ('About' tells you why)

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